In May, prompted by an uncritical article in the Daily Mail, the internet was buzzing about a company that was offering drinkable sunscreen. This is one of those game-changer health products that immediately garners a great deal of attention.
At first the claim seems extraordinary, but it is not impossible. It is theoretically possible to drink a substance that becomes deposited in the skin and absorbs or reflects UV radiation providing protection. However, upon reading the details it becomes immediately apparent that the product in question is pure snake oil.
The product is Harmonized Water by Osmosis Skin Care. In fact, UV protection is just one claim among many for the harmonized water line of products. The website claims:
- Remarkable technology that imprints frequencies (as standing waves) onto water molecules.
- Advances in the ability to “stack” thousands of frequencies onto one molecule.
- Revolutionary formula allows us to reverse engineer the frequencies of substances found in nature and/or the human body.
- Newly identified frequencies that have beneficial effects on the body.
A while ago, I wrote about how the Cleveland Clinic had recently opened a clinic that dispensed herbal medicine according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice. As regular readers of the SBM blog might expect, I was not particularly impressed or approving of this particular bit of infiltration of quackademic medicine into a major academic medical center, particularly given some of the amazingly pseudoscientific treatments espoused by the naturopath who was running the clinic. I also pointed out that, although herbalism is the most plausible (or perhaps I should say the least implausible) of modalities commonly associated with “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine”, it still exhibits a number of problems, the biggest of which is what I like to call either the delivery problem or the bioavailability problem. In brief, herbs, when they work, are adulterated drugs. The active ingredient is usually a minor constituent, embedded in thousands of other constituents that make up herbs, and it’s almost impossible to control lot-to-lot consistency with respect to content or active ingredients given how location, weather, soil conditions, rainfall, and many other factors can affect how the plants from which the medicines are extracted grow and therefore their chemical composition. To demonstrate the concept, I pointed out that it’s much safer and more predictable to administer digoxin to a patient who needs its activity on the heart than it would be for the patient to chew on some foxglove leaves, given that the therapeutic window (the difference between the doses needed to produce therapeutic effects and the lowest dose that will cause significant toxicity) is narrow.
Which brings me to medical marijuana, a.k.a. medical cannabis.
As regular readers of this blog know, Dr. Mehmet Oz had a very, very bad day last week, in which he received a major tongue lashing from Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) for the scientifically unsupported and irresponsible hyperbole he dishes out day after day on his syndicated daytime television show. Personally, I was tempted to pile on myself, but had to content myself with enjoying a couple of posts from a super secret blog in the run-up to the hearing (inviting Dr. Oz to testify is “like asking Al Capone to testify about U.S. tax policy or Stanislaw Burzynski about clinical trial design and ethics”), right after the hearing, and looking at the fallout from the hearing. I had even thought of asking my “friend” to combine the last two into an SBM-worthy post, but by the time that thought had occurred to me, the moment had passed.
One of the best takes I’ve seen on the whole “Oz-fest” last week comes from John Oliver on his HBO show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. It’s a really long segment that takes up the last half of his show and features—don’t ask why—George R. R. Martin and a tap dancing Steve Buscemi. It’s hilariously spot on:
Most SBM readers will enjoy it. I promise. Oliver even correctly identifies Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) as tools of the supplement industry and explains why dietary supplements in the U.S. are largely unregulated and the FDA and FTC have such limited powers to do anything about them preemptively.
Not Dr. Oz’s usual television audience
Dr. Mehmet Oz is one of the most well-known, and possibly the most influential medical doctor in America. The Dr. Oz Show is broadcast in 118 countries and reaches over 3 million viewers in the USA alone. When Oz profiles a product or supplement on his show, sales explode – it’s called “The Dr. Oz Effect”. Regrettably, Oz routinely and consistently gives questionable health advice, particularly when it comes to weight loss products, where Oz regularly uses hyperbolic terms like “miracle” for the products he profiles:
- (On green coffee extract) — “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight-loss for every body type.”
- (On raspberry ketone) — “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat”
- (On Garcinia cambogia) — “It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”
Dr. Oz has profiled so many dubious health strategies that “The Dr. Oz Effect” more accurately refers to the wasted time, effort and finances of any consumer that actually follows his health advice and purchases the steady stream of “miracles” that Oz endorses on his television show. Not surprisingly, Science-Based Medicine is probably Oz’s most persistent and tenacious critic. It’s not just that he’s high profile – it’s that Dr. Oz is a bona fide physician who ought to know better, but chooses to ignore science in favour of hyperbole. It’s the antithesis of what a health professional should be doing. And this is the root of the Oz problem: Oz can give good advice, but he regularly combines it with questionable statements and pseudoscience in a way that the casual viewer can’t distinguish between the science and the fiction. So when Oz calls something a miracle – people listen. Even when miracles show up several times per year. (more…)
A correspondent asked me to look into the science behind the health claims for turmeric. He had encountered medical professionals “trying to pass turmeric as some sort of magical herb to cure us from the ‘post-industrial chemical apocalypse.’” It is recommended by the usual promoters of CAM: Oz, Weil, Mercola, and the Health Ranger (who conveniently sells his own superior product, Turmeric Gold liquid extract for $17 an ounce).
Turmeric (Cucurma longa) is a plant in the ginger family that is native to southeast India. It is also known as curcumin. The rhizomes are ground into an orange-yellow powder that is used as a spice in Indian cuisine. It has traditionally been used in folk medicine for various indications; and it has now become popular in alternative medicine circles, where it is claimed to be effective in treating a broad spectrum of diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and diabetes. One website claims science has proven it to be as effective as 14 drugs, including statins like Lipitor, corticosteroids, antidepressants like Prozac, anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen, the chemotherapy drug oxaliplatin, and the diabetes drug metformin. I wish those claims were true, because turmeric is far less expensive and probably much safer than prescription drugs. It clearly has some interesting properties, but the claims go far beyond the actual evidence. (more…)
What AMD does to vision
Four years ago I wrote about the premature marketing of a diet supplement for macular degeneration before the results of a trial to test it were available. Now that we know the results of that trial, a follow-up post is in order.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness. The incidence increases with age; it affects 10% of people by age 66-74 and 30% of people by age 75-85. There are known risk factors including genetics and smoking, but there is no effective prevention. There are multiple diet supplement products on the market that are advertised as “supporting eye health.” Some are based on evidence from randomized, controlled studies; but the advertising hype goes beyond the evidence and tends to mislead consumers. There is evidence that supplementation may slow the progression of moderate to severe AMD, but there is no evidence that supplements are effective in milder disease or for preventing AMD from developing in the first place. (more…)
I know by now I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed by how readily so many people buy into the seemingly endless array of bogus sCAM nostrums. Many are marketed and hawked for the treatment or prevention of diseases that are poorly managed by science-based medicine. There are countless examples of dietary supplements that are purported to effectively treat back and joint pains, depression, anxiety, autism, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; the list goes on and on. The lure for these treatments is at least understandable and, although frustrated that scientific literacy and rational thought loses out, I empathize with the desire to believe in them. On the other end of the spectrum is the even more ethically corrupt substitution of safe and effective treatments with products that are not. I encountered what I find to be possibly the most frightening and dangerous example of this recently at my practice. A family new to the area called to schedule a routine health-maintenance visit for their 5-year-old daughter. When our nurse reviewed the medical records the mother had faxed over, she noted that the child was unimmunized and explained to her that she would need to begin catch-up vaccinations. The mother matter-of-factly stated that her daughter was actually fully vaccinated with a vaccine alternative. She had received a series of homeopathic vaccines from a naturopath. I am not going to discuss this egregious example of sCAM here, though it was addressed in previous SBM posts.1,2 Instead I’d like to focus on another part of the sCAM spectrum. Here lies a form of sCAM that, in some ways, is even more difficult for me to comprehend. These are products invented, marketed, and sold solely for the treatment or prevention of fictitious diseases or problems that exist only in the realm of fantasy. (more…)
The Canadian Parliament, hypothetically protecting consumers since Confederation.
One of the most pervasive yet appealing health myths is the idea that natural equals safe. It’s a statement that’s repeated constantly by manufacturers of supplements and “natural” health products. It’s been the primary argument used, with considerable success, to give these products completely different regulatory structures than exist for drug products. Weaker regulation of supplements and natural health products has been a boon to manufacturers, but the same can’t be said for consumer protection. It’s effectively a buyer-beware marketplace in most parts of the world, with little accurate information available to consumers. But supplement manufacturers aren’t content with the minimal regulation that’s currently in place – they want health “freedom”. In this case, “freedom” means the right to sell any product, while being exempted from safety and regulatory requirements. New Canadian legislation is poised to raise safety standards for drugs and enhance the ability of regulators to recall dangerous products, yet consumers of natural health products are left behind. The legislation proposes to exempt anything considered a “natural health product”. This is not only bad public policy, but it has the potential to cause avoidable harm. After all, shouldn’t users of supplements and natural health products be entitled to the same safety and quality standards as those that use prescription drugs? If the supplement industry gets its way, the answer will be “no”. (There is an opportunity until June 10 for you to provide feedback on this legislation – see below.) (more…)
Sisyphus and his endless task
My BMI is 21, but my e-mail and Facebook accounts must think I’m fat. I am constantly bombarded with messages about miracle weight loss solutions, and most of them are diet supplements featured on the Dr. Oz show. Back in December I wrote an article about Garcinia cambogia, Dr. Oz’s “newest, fastest fat buster.” I made this prediction: “I confidently expect another “miracle” to supplant Garcinia in the Land of Oz in the not-too-distant future.” I was right. The e-mails about Garcinia have recently been outnumbered by e-mails about a new Dr. Oz miracle weight loss supplement, forskolin. Actually, I think he discovered forskolin before he discovered Garcinia, but the forskolin propaganda seems to have reached a critical mass in the last few weeks.
The Land of Oz
A Dr. Oz episode on the “Rapid Belly Melt” aired a month ago, on May 5. He set fire to a paper representation of a fat belly to show how forskolin “works like a furnace inside your body.” The paper ignited, went up in flames, and revealed a non-flammable model of muscle tissue inside to show how forskolin burns fat, not muscle, and to illustrate how quickly it works. (more…)
Do you take a vitamin or dietary supplement? It’s increasingly likely that you do, as over half of all American adults took some sort of supplement over the past 30 days. Now there’s evidence to suggest that about one-third of all Americans are taking supplements and prescription drug at the same time, which is renewing questions about risks and benefits. The same study reveals that combining supplements and prescription drugs is more common among those with certain medical conditions, compared to those without.
Many of us supplement in the absence of evidence of benefit, or even medical need. For example, there is little persuasive evidence to suggest that routine supplementation with products like multivitamins is necessary. There are exceptions of course: Those potentially becoming pregnant, those on dietary restrictions (e.g., vegans), and those with demonstrable medical need are among the cases where there is a clear benefit to vitamin supplementation, for example. The majority of us take supplements, like multivitamins, for “insurance” rather than because we have a deficiency or medical need. The evidence for non-vitamin supplements, like herbal products, is just as questionable as it is for vitamins, with few products showing meaningful health benefits. Ultimately decisions about supplements come down to evaluations of risk and benefits. Since I started working as a pharmacist, I’ve always cautioned consumers about the quality concerns and efficacy with herbal products and supplements, and the resultant risks that make me very hesitant to suggest their routine use – especially when they’re combined with prescription drugs. Yet the evidence suggests that it’s occurring – with increasing frequency. (more…)